Zero-Waste Design

Back in January, a very large piece of cloth arrived at my doorstep. I had asked for one of the blankets that herders sleep inside when camping out with the flocks, thinking that I could cut it up into smaller pieces and stitch some bags out of it. I unfolded the bundle as much as possible within my living room (did I mention that it’s 5 meters long!?) and stood contemplating it. As I considered the possibilities, one thing was foremost in my mind: making use of every last inch of it through zero-waste design.

Among other considerations: how to photograph this giant thing?

Eco-conscious fashion designers are turning to zero-waste design in order to reduce textile waste that is generated when cutting pattern pieces from rectangular pieces of cloth. When working with handmade material, zero-waste design is also a way of honoring the immense amount of skill, time, labor, and life that went into creating the fabric. Many lives are entangled within the unwieldy piece of cloth lying on my floor: the lives of the ten or so sheep who grew the material on their backs, and of the herders who guided them safely through rugged terrain; of the shearer who carefully cut it off their bodies, leaving them free to grow more; of the women of the weaver’s family who washed the wool, took it to the carding mill, and spun it by hand into yarn; of the owner of the carding mill who, instead of cashing in on the increasing influx of tourists to the region, runs his business to cater to the needs of the local community; and of the weaver who sat at his loom for days on end to produce the cloth.

My commitment to zero-waste design also continues an ethic of reuse present in the communities that are producing the wool I use. Time and again during my fieldwork, I was invited into homes where I was offered a seat on a mat stitched together from layers of empty cement bags or the burlap sacks in which rations of rice are distributed. I would be offered tea with milk from the household cow, who ate food scraps from the kitchen and whose dung was used to plaster the floor over which the mats were spread. If store-bought namkeen (salty snacks) were served, my hosts would carefully fold the empty plastic foil packet and stash it away for later use–in one household that I visited, to make colorful floor rugs.

namkeen packet rug
from top left to bottom right: mats made of burlap, plastic packets, and cement bags covering a dung plaster floor

Although I was delighted with Budhi Devi’s rugs and similar creations, I sometimes found villagers’ zero-waste ethic frustrating in accomplishing my research goals. In order to try out different processing methods or compare wool from different regions, seasons, and breeds, I often wanted to play around with small amounts of wool without any expectation of making anything out of it. This sort of playful experimentation has long been a staple of my crafting and research practices, but was perceived in that context as wasteful. I found it easier to conduct such experiments in private (as much as possible, since a lot of it was messy outdoors work) and ended up doing much less of it than I had originally planned. I’m still puzzling through what this means for my research practice moving forward, and in taking on this project of cutting up a blanket, I feel an obligation to make good use of the thing. That obligation feels almost as weighty as the blanket itself.

But zero-waste design can be a fun puzzle, too! Take, for example, my most recent design–a series of wallets. Cutting across the full width of the blanket, I was able to cut 6 rectangles of the necessary size. To create the wallet pattern, I then cut out one corner of the rectangle. That piece became a pocket stitched onto the larger pattern piece, which then folded up into a simple billfold with a pocket for cards.

wallet open
Best of all, from one cut across the blanket and one basic design, I got three slightly different looks. The pieces cut from the middle of the blanket have clean edges all around, giving a simple and classic look. The pieces from the edges (as pictured above) show off the slightly uneven selvedge where the weaver pulls the shuttle across the loom. And the piece from the very center features the seam that is hand-stitched down the whole length of the blanket to join two narrower pieces into one.

wallet styles

I’m already thinking how this design could be adapted to larger pieces like a handbag. And I’m definitely planning on making a lot more of these cute little guys! I’ll be adding them to the shop as I make more, so check back every now and again.

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